What are the Australian rangelands?
Nearly three quarters of Australia is rangeland. It comprises the low rainfall and variable climate arid and semi-arid areas and, north of the Tropic of Capricorn, some seasonally high rainfall areas. The rangelands also include the slopes and plains of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. Australia's rangeland are a complex system where many values are being considered so that our rangelands can be managed in a sustainable way.
Working with a range of existing measures such as the National Principles and Guidelines for Rangeland Management, the Natural Heritage Trust will be attempting to assist land managers and local communities in achieving sustainability in our rangelands.
What do we know about the environmental values of Australia's rangelands?
Australia's rangelands have a large mix of ecosystem types including native grasslands, shrublands, woodlands and the tropical savanna woodlands. Our rangelands contain a wealth of biodiversity including a total of 1800 types of plants and 605 vertebrate animals currently identified. However a range of activities in our rangeland areas have accounted for approximately 12% of arid zone extinctions (11 species), i.e. 61% of all mammal extinctions in Australia and 7% of flowering plant extinctions (6 species).
People in Australia's rangelands
Australia's Aboriginal communities have a long and rich cultural history with our rangelands. For those Aboriginal peoples who are the rangelands' original owners, this part of Australia has great significance as it is the focus of many of their aspirations concerning access and ownership of land, for economic independence and for spiritual and social purposes. Approximately 18 per cent of our rangelands are under Aboriginal ownership and management.
Our rangelands also support most of Australia's valuable mining industry ($12 billion/yr) and growing enterprises such as tourism ($1.7 billion/yr). Although mining and tourism are economically more significant than pastoralism ($1 billion/yr) the 6,000 pastoral businesses operating in our rangelands means that pastoralism is the most widespread land use.
In recent years a substantial flora and fauna harvesting industry (e.g. native seeds, bush foods, cut flowers, kangaroos, goats and buffalos) estimated to be in the order of $190 million annually has developed in the rangelands. The development of alternative farming resources and economic markets stands as a strong demonstration that rangeland use is changing and that land managers are exploring options that diversify their existing farming operations.
Our rangelands also contain 11% of all listings on the Register of the National Estate, and have five World Heritage sites.
Treading lightly on the Australian rangelands
The sustainable management of our rangelands is an essential task. Concerns about the ecological condition of our rangelands and about the social and economic sustainability of its industries have been building for some time. Parts of our rangelands are suffering from increased rates of land degradation caused by accelerated soil erosion, increased numbers and distribution of weeds and feral animals, reduced water quality, soil salinity, the decline of and changes to native plant and animal communities. Reduced productivity of the rangelands is a major concern for pastoralists as financial viability of pastoral businesses largely depends on the biological sustainability of our rangelands. A reduction in productivity may result from overstocking, high grazing pressure and inappropriate fire, water and soil management practises.
Rangelands: part of Australia's natural heritage
A working group representing community interests, Governments and scientists from across the country has developed National principles and guidelines for rangeland management. The aim of the Principles and Guidelines is to apply the principles of ecologically sustainable development to the rangelands. The support and involvement of land managers and local communities in our rangelands will play a vital part in achieving this aim.
The Commonwealth Government is working with all sectors of the Australian community through the Natural Heritage Trust to achieve long term environmental change in areas such as our rangelands. Programs such as Bushcare: the National Vegetation Initiative, the National Landcare Program, Murray-Darling 2001 and the Rivercare Initiative present all Australians with the opportunity to get involved in achieving real, on-ground outcomes aimed at improving our natural environment and the development of sustainable production systems.
For further information on Rangelands contact the Environment Australia Community Information Unit on 1800 803 772.